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JPMorgan’s Zombies Memorize Pi, Google’s Seekers Squirm: Books

The cover jacket of "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?" by William Poundstone. Source: Hachette Book Group via Bloomberg

A word to the wise job seeker:

At Google Inc., interviewers might urge you to cite the world’s most beautiful equation. JPMorgan Chase & Co. may expect you to trot out the value of pi (in more than six digits, please). And the folks at Inc. might ask what you would charge to wash all the windows in Seattle.

This is just a sample of the questions, logic puzzles and brain-breaking riddles packed into William Poundstone’s amusing and sometimes creepy guide to interviewing in an (almost) jobless recovery, “Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?”

Poundstone is a prolific author of energetic books about mathematics, science and money, including “Fortune’s Formula” (on a betting system that beat Vegas and Wall Street) and “Priceless” (all about pricing psychology). Now he’s back with a sequel to his take on fiendishly tricky Microsoft Corp. interrogations, “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?”

With 15.2 percent of Americans unemployed or underemployed, interviewers are no longer wowed by a strong CV, a Harvard diploma and a clever answer to the now-familiar poser, “Why are manhole covers round?” Companies are skimming for cream and subjecting applicants to “harder, ruder, more invasive vetting than ever before,” Poundstone says.

“We live in an age of desperation,” he writes. “Never in living memory has the competition for job openings been more intense. Never have job interviews been tougher” for what he calls the “zombie hordes” hunting for work.

Rogues and Hazings

And not just at Google and Microsoft. These days, job applicants far from Silicon Valley may be subjected to bizarre interrogations from corporate interviewers who have, as Poundstone says, gone rogue.

At AT&T Inc., he says, applicants are asked what superhero they would choose to be. Morgan Stanley sometimes requests the square root of 0.01. Many questions amount to screening: Apple Inc., for example, may ask, “What happened in 2001?” (No points for saying 9/11; we’re talking about the year the iPod was introduced.)

Even after proving your mettle during one of these hazings, you may be called back again and again and again, suspended in what Poundstone calls “the Kafka interview.” Eventually, you may be offered only a trial position, which amounts to an on-the-job interview with no promise of lasting employment.

The book addresses a wide audience. For those in the job market, Poundstone provides a handy survey of killer questions and how to answer them. For others, he offers the challenge of matching wits with people at America’s most innovative companies. As for employers, he presents a timely warning about creative thinking and why job interviews don’t work.

‘Smart Losers’

Testing for inventiveness is tricky. IQ alone proves a fickle guide. In a random sample of creative, successful people, nigh on 100 percent are very intelligent, Poundstone writes. The opposite isn’t true: “Mensa meetings are filled with smart losers,” he says.

Each chapter closes with a selection of questions. There are classic riddles, numeracy tests, demands for impromptu estimates, algorithmic conundrums and tricks designed to elicit “technically correct but useless answers.” Consider this:

“You have 10,000 Apache servers and one day to generate $1 million. What do you do?” (Hint: What would a trader do?)

The answers are tucked into 120 pages in the back of the book, for easy reference. The format affords Poundstone room to display his scientific knowledge, mathematical fluency and knack for explaining the arcane in playfully precise sentences.

Putting Google in the title is more than a come-on. Poundstone introduces us to engineers and the folks in “People Ops,” Googlespeak for human resources. We also meet job applicants who sweated though unnerving questions at the “Googleplex” in Mountain View, California.

“You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender,” one begins. What do you do before the blades begin to whirr in 60 seconds?

This query, however odd, is grounded in serious science. Grillings at other outfits can get just plain goofy. Designed to establish if a candidate fits the corporate personality, they may reveal more about the company itself.

At Bank of America Corp., an aspiring personal banker was asked to picture himself as a cartoon character: Which would he be and why? “Yogi Bear,” the applicant replied, winning a round of applause and an immediate hire, we read.

Did someone mention Yogi’s weakness for “pic-a-nic baskets”? Poundstone doesn’t say.

“Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?” is from Little, Brown (290 pages, $19.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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